Whisky in the winelands

The collection at Cavalli

First published in Private Edition magazine (December 2014 edition).

As it appeared - p1.

As it appeared – p1.

As it appeared - p2.

As it appeared – p2.

It’s said that one should never mix one’s drinks. As an unashamed practitioner of these dark arts, I reject the idea in the strongest possible terms. There’s little that’s more satisfying than enjoying a broad repertoire, preferably one after the other (deferred gratification is overrated). Nonetheless, despite these tendencies, I was surprised recently to stumble upon a bit of an oddity at Cavalli Estate: a massive stash of whisky on a wine farm. What’s more blatant than mixing the grain with the grape?

Odd but not outrageous. Located not too far away are Asara and the Devon Valley Hotel, both boasting outstanding whisky selections, an indication that even here, in a region that has wine so tightly clutched to its bosom, whisky has begun to demand its rightful share of attention. This one though was something special – the private whisky collection of Cavalli owner Jerome Smith, stretching to over 400 carefully accumulated whiskies.

Almost 15 years ago I was privileged to “tour” (that’s how it felt – such was its extent) the whisky collection of the late Leslie Zulberg, probably the finest ever put together in the country. This was during my whisky nascency, and yes, while I knew that I was in the presence of something extraordinary, looking back now I realise that it was largely wasted on the younger, greener me. We are the sum of our experiences, and that visit played its part in my journey, but being more knowledgeable now after having visited distilleries in places as close as Wellington and as far-flung as Islay, and having tasted whiskies as illustrious as the John Walker Diamond Jubilee (a 60YO blend) and as unusual as the Michel Couvreur Spirale (an 18YO finished in Jura vin de paille casks), I saw the Cavalli visit as going some way to redeem me.

Whisky collections are a source of both excitement and discomfort to me. It’s a subject on which I feel genuinely conflicted. On the one hand there’s admiration, of course. The sight of all of those bottles, lined up like an army in formation, often in their hundreds, will unfailingly quicken the collective pulse of whisky lovers everywhere. This I think is a natural reaction to an object of desire – and any collection worth its salt will invariably amass serious desire in serious volume. These collections are also a testament to discipline and persistence of the collector, civilization-building virtues to which I can’t help but doff my hat. And yet, on the other hand – it must be said – they’re an exercise in thwarted purpose. There’s a significant fraction of the world’s finest whiskies – whiskies that are the culmination of generations of incremental expertise, whiskies that in many cases have spent decades patiently maturing in a cask, and whiskies that have been made and cultivated specifically to be the best of the best – that will likely never pass the lips, but instead will spend a lifetime, if not many lifetimes, locked away in glass. So whilst a great collection is beautiful, it is somewhat sadly beautiful. Whisky is meant to be drunk.

Smith divulged to me that when he drinks whisky he tends to stick to the Balvenie 12YO. It’s a delicious dram, no doubt, but how tempting it must be to reach a little higher when the facility to do so is so evidently at one’s disposal. Did I mention discipline?

The Cavalli collection is imposingly impressive. When I asked him for his standouts Smith mentioned his 50YO’s – Glenfiddich (of which he has two) and Glen Grant. They need no introduction. Interestingly the former comes with a certificate which allows the bearer to sample the whisky when visiting the distillery. If one considers that a tot sells for R18k at the V&A’s Bascule Bar, then this is very useful indeed, an added bonus which goes some way to tempering the pain of constantly contemplating but never opening this gem of a whisky.
My slightly morose reflection on collections should be further balanced by the value of whisky as an investment – not necessarily the raison d’être for collecting, but always playing a part. I don’t have a crystal ball and I hesitate to recommend whisky in general as an area of ongoing value growth, but it’s unarguable that its performance over the last decade has been exceptional – a case of dramatically rising demand that was, completely and critically, unanticipated by the industry. Under-supplied, highly-aged stock has consequently been selling for a fortune. This is the drawback to whisky production – it’s a slow and time consuming process. Any whisky is at least three years in the making, great whisky considerably more.

As I laboriously pored over the collection, one shelf after the other, I suddenly came to an abrupt standstill. There is one particular whisky that lives largest in the dreams of all whisky investors…(cue drumroll) the 1964 Black Bowmore (cue cymbals). My itinerant preoccupation with whisky has taken me to a few memorable places, Bowmore included. Funnily enough though my opportunity to see the Black Bowmore in the flesh came not at the Islay distillery but at Auld Alliance in Singapore, which at the time accommodated a first edition in pristine condition with a near-as-damn-it original fill level. These bottles had initially retailed for some £80 when they were first released in 1993 – they now fetch upwards of £6500. You don’t need to do the maths. It’s a staggering performance, by any standard. The second and third editions, which followed in 1994 and 1995, were similarly (if marginally less) spectacular. Together they created a dynasty. The Cavalli bottle is from the final edition (bottled in 2007 from what remained of those same casks, and sold for considerably more), but regardless it retains its claim as one of the most iconic products in the history of whisky. The collection’s other highlights read like Scotch whisky’s roll of honour (not that these whiskies are dead, far from it): Macallan 1937, Highland Park 1962, Bowmore 1968, and Macallan 1969. I was inclined to bow.

The Zulberg collection, when I had encountered it, was locked away in a basement in the declining Johannesburg suburb of Orange Grove. The discordance of it has stayed with me all these years. Luckily the Cavalli collection suffers no such obscurity. It’s not as loud as it is proud – viewings are by appointment only – but it is accessible to a wider audience and, being exquisitely presented in display cabinets, it sensibly fosters a look-but-preferably-don’t-touch appreciation.

As if the whisky wasn’t enough (it was), I was awed by Cavalli in its entirety. The only thing I can reliably inform you about its eponymous horses is which are the front and back ends. I like horses but the less I say about them the better. The rest of it though was in closer vicinity to my comfort zone, so I feel I can pass comment with some measure of assurance. The food is faultless, in fact my rib-eye was literally perfect, the wine is delicious, the sommelier having recommended the Warlord (the estate’s flagship red blend) to accompany my steak, the gallery and other scattered artworks are delightful, with Pierneefs aplenty, and the view is astonishing, taking in the full broad swathe of the Helderberg. Cavalli then is a close to perfect outing for the bon vivant with a whisky bent. May the dram be with you.

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